`System' aims for laughs from quirky production

THEATER

Frazzled family isn't funny enough

January 16, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The endangered system in Jon Klein's Dimly Perceived Threats to the System is the traditional American family. In this quirky dark comedy, it's on the brink of collapse.

The play focuses on the fictional Hauser family. Mom is a corporate consultant who specializes in downsizing and whose nerves are frayed. Dad is a filmmaker working on a documentary about family values while he embarks on an affair with his female producer. And 13-year-old daughter Christine is a disaffected youth, fast approaching anorexia.

Under James Kinstle's direction at the Vagabond Players, the play's quirkiness comes through. But the production as a whole lacks enough verve to make this family's hysteria seem hysterically funny.

The chief difficulty is that the production often fails to capitalize on the play's cleverest device - the fantasy sequences Klein slips into the otherwise conventional scenes. It's no coincidence that the actors with the firmest grip on these sequences (Ashley Ruth Fishell as the rebellious daughter and Jaina Hiral as the chilly but seductive producer) deliver the tautest performances.

You realize how effective the entire evening could be when you see Fishell's distress as the daughter imagines a drill-wielding school therapist giving her a lobotomy, or Hiral's exaggerated cheerfulness as the producer displays compromising snapshots at a family picnic. (Crisper lighting cues would also help differentiate fantasy from reality.)

Dana Whipkey exhibits flashes of edgy wackiness as the father, but Joan Weber comes across as too much of a genial earth mother to make her character's desperation ring true. Combine this with an excessively didactic final speech delivered by Weber's character, and Dimly Perceived could, indeed, use a smidge more candlepower.

Show times at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, and 7 p.m. Feb. 2, through Feb. 9. Tickets are $12. Call 410-563-9135.

There has been a change in the Vagabonds lineup. Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue will replace the previously announced musical Gigi as the season's next show, March 7-April 6. Mike Moran will direct Simon's 1971 comedy about a struggling New York executive and his long-suffering wife.

Center Stage news

There's lots of news from Center Stage. Ain't Misbehavin' just opened last night, but record-setting ticket sales have already led to a one-week extension of the run, which will now end Feb. 23. As of Monday, the show had racked up the largest advance single-ticket sale - $107,300 - in the theater's history. The previous record was $71,400 for H.M.S. Pinafore five years ago.

In other news, the theater has hired a new resident dramaturg - Gavin Witt. Regional vice president of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas as well as an actor, director, teacher and translator, Witt has been dramaturg and literary manager of Chicago's Northlight Theatre for four seasons and a lecturer at the University of Chicago for the past decade.

His translation of Ionesco's Macbett and his adaptation of Marlowe's Tamburlaine were both nominated for Chicago's Jefferson Awards. A graduate of Yale University, Witt replaces Charlotte Stoudt, an eight-year Center Stage veteran who stepped down in November to pursue other artistic interests.

And, a reminder, the latest installment in the theater's First Look play-reading series will take place Jan. 30 and 31 in the Head Theater. This time around, the theater is taking a second look at a play that was part of last year's series - Danny's Hoch's Till the Break of Dawn, a multi-cast work about a group of hip-hop American activists who travel to Cuba.

The readings will follow a two-week New York workshop, sponsored by Center Stage, which hopes to produce the play next season. Hoch, best-known as a solo performance artist, will answer questions from the audience after each reading. Show times at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., are 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 ($5 for subscribers and students). Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.

Although Center Stage is celebrating its 40th anniversary all season, it officially turns 40 Wednesday. An exhibit on the mezzanine commemorates the theater's first four decades.

Company Thirteen

You may not be able to see live theater in your living room, but now a fledgling community theater, Company Thirteen, has come up with the next best thing. The company, which produced two Shakespeare plays over the past two summers, recently moved into a permanent space where theatergoers can watch plays while seated on sofas, loveseats and armchairs.

The venue, dubbed the Top Floor, is the third floor of a commercial building at 5440 Harford Road. The informally furnished, flexible space includes a back room that has been turned into a small cabaret, which will be the site of post-play discussions as well as spoken word and music performances.

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